Pension Day Activists Educate Legislators about Pensions and Benefits

By Rosemary Carey- CSR Communications Consultant

On Tuesday, Nov. 29, during CSR-MI’s Pension Action Day, more than 120 retired and current school, state and municipal employees descended on the Capitol to tell their legislators that the lame duck session doesn’t allow enough time to deal with issues as important as pensions and retiree health care.

The day began with a legislative update and a preview of the lame duck session. Attendees were told that Republicans in both the House and Senate were trying to push through devastating legislation in the last days of session that would change the way school employee pensions are funded and cut retiree healthcare benefits for public employees — issues too complex to be taken in up in lame duck without sufficient time for in-depth hearings and adequate public debate.

Bea Smits, a 32-year veteran Royal Oak teacher who’s been retired since 2003, said, “Why do they keep going after us? This is not what I voted for. Why are they trying to rush this through in lame duck? We have a Republican governor, House and Senate that control everything. What’s the rush?”

Armed with research data and relevant talking points, attendees headed to the Capitol for the Senate session and the opportunity to speak with their lawmakers.

Legislators supporting the pension and retiree healthcare reform told Pension Action Day attendees that current pension systems aren’t sustainable because of unfunded liabilities that must be paid off. However, what is being proposed means future school, state and municipal employees, along with the state, will be paying more for a worse retirement plan that does little to lessen any unfunded liabilities. The current hybrid pension system created in 2012 for new employees is currently 100 percent funded. This combination of a defined contribution and 401(k) plan is working., so there’s no need to take risks with school employees’ futures’

CSR lobbyist Todd Tennis told the attendees, “Legislators are ignoring the fact that these ‘reforms’ are costly and will make it harder to pay off any debt.”

He compared the situation to credit card debt. “Just because you cut up your credit card doesn’t mean that your credit card debt disappears. You’re still responsible for paying it off. Just because you shut new employees out of MPSERS, doesn’t mean the unfunded liabilities will go away. It’s more complicated than that.”

Some legislators justified their actions by saying that current retirees and employees aren’t affected — only new employees.

“They’re not seeing the big picture,” said Stephanie Nahas, a Warren

Consolidated special education paraprofessional for the past 30 years and an AFSCME member.

“Keeping new employees from joining the current pension system doesn’t erase the debt. It’s still there, but there will be fewer people paying into it the system and helping to lower the current debt.”

During her meeting with Sen. Marty Knollenberg (R-Troy), she explained how future retirees and current ones would still be affected. Stephanie said, “You may not directly cut my pension, but if you take away my benefits, I’ll have to pay for those benefits with my pension which means less money for me to live on. Everyone in the profession is affected.”

A full Mackinac room at CSR Pension Action Day

Andy and Donna Burnette-Albu also explained to Sen. Knollenberg just how the Legislature’s plans to shut down MPSERS and cut retiree healthcare benefits would affect them and their family.

“We have seven children who are in education. They’re already struggling to survive, with two of them being the sole support of their family. They’re dedicated professionals, but what will they have to look forward to if their pensions take a hit or they have no health benefits in retirement? No one will want to go into education and we’re forcing them to sign up for government assistance to provide for themselves and their families.”

Donna was a teacher for 27 years and has been retired for 15 years; Andy, a UAW Local 6000 member, worked for the Family Independent Agency for 21 years before retiring in 2002.

During a lunch break before attending the House session in the afternoon, attendees provided a debrief of the discussions with their senators.

One retiree reported that Sen. Tonya Schuitmaker (R-Lawton) disputed the claim that the Legislature is rushing pension and retiree healthcare reform in lame duck. “Sen. Schuitmaker said the idea of closing down MPSERS to new teachers and putting them into a 401(k)-type pension plan has been around for two years in the form of SB 102. And there’s been concern about the unfunded liabilities for years before that.”

Sen Patrick Colbeck (R-Canton Township) said he supported pension reform because it isn’t fair that public employees should have a defined benefit pension plan while employees in the private sector are being moved into 401(k) plans.

Michigan legislators are jumping on a bandwagon being promoted by national groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), and state organizations like the Mackinac Center and Dick DeVos’ West Michigan Policy Forum. They’re promoting the idea that we have a pension crisis on our hands, but they’re failing to acknowledge that things are getting better.

Nevertheless, Pension Action Day participants declared the day a success and remain committed to continuing their lobbying efforts with emails to their legislators and letters to the editor. But many expressed concern that this lame duck session is looking an awful lot like the lame duck session four years ago when right to work was rammed through.

Dennis York, a retired Algonac sixth grade teacher, is concerned with any changes that could negatively impact his pension. He already works a second job to supplement his retirement.

“I’ve never been so afraid of what’s going to happen,” he said. “I’ve been telling Sen. Pavlov that the pension system is not broken and shutting it down or making changes is not going to save this state any money, but I haven’t gotten any response from him.”